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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Comparative Listening: The Bruckner Seventh

"There is the same slow, broad introduction, the drawn-out climaxes that grow, pull back and then grow some more--a sort of musical coitus interruptus"--Bernard Holland, reviewing a Bruckner symphony.

The survey comparing recordings of classic symphonies continues. (Maybe I should call this Battle of the Box Sets?) This week, the subject of analysis is Anton Bruckner's roof-raising Seventh Symphony, sometimes known as the "Lyric."


Bruckner worked on a big scale, writing four-movement symphonies that have been described by numerous other writers as "cathedrals of sound": slow arpeggios of ever-ascending strings and brass reaching heavenward. It has also been said that Bruckner wrote the same symphony nine times, an unkindness that misses the point. The little organist from Linz wasn't repeating himself: he was refining and reworking his central idea, creating new and different stairways to heaven.

With the Seventh, written in 1883 (and revised in 1885), Bruckner expanded his orchestral palette even further with the addition of four Wagner tubas, the brass horn/tuba hybrids invented by Richard Wagner for the first performance of the Ring. This choice was not accidental. Wagner died while Bruckner worked on the Seventh, and the work contains numerous allusions to the other composer.

The Contenders:
Berlin Philharmonic cond. Eugen Jochum (DG, 1965)
Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan
Royal Scottish National Orchestra cond. George Tintner
Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin cond. Riccardo Chailly
SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Sergiu Celibdache
Berlin Philharmonic cond. Daniel Barenboim (Teldec/Warner Brothers Classics, 1994)

I. Allegro Moderato
Like every other Bruckner symphony, the Seventh opens with a hushed figure for strings, meant to evoke the opening of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Bruckner works methodically, building bricks of sound. The sonic wall rises slowly to a climax, played by a brass chorale. Then the brass stop, and the building resumes with strings, rising to another climax, and so forth. The first movement ends when the brasses start to play descending figures against the rising strings, an effect that reminds the listener of the rushing Rhine from Wagner's Das Rheingold.

Performances of this movement average out at 20-22 minutes, with Chailly being the slowest. All three Berlin Philharmonic recordings have those brass chorales breaking in a sonic wave over the listener. Celibidache's radio broadcast has a mystic quality to it, shared with many of that conductor's performances.

II. Adagio: Sehr Feierlich und Sehr Langsam
The second movement is a molten, shifting Adagio that allows the most Romantic conductors full rein as Bruckner pours out his grief for the passing of Wagner. The relationship between the two composers is at the heart of this movement, and its slow three-note figure recalls the preludes to Act I and III of Parsifal, Wagner's last opera.

Surprisingly, Sergiu Celibidache is not the slowest Adagio out of the box. That honor goes to Eugen Jochum's first commercial recording of the symphony at a solid 25'. Tintner is the fastest here, although still relatively sedate, given the flowing nature of the music.

III: Scherzo: Ser schnell
This lumbering movement is in the form of a Ländler, the Austrian peasant dance beloved of Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler to show cheerful rustics galumphing through the countryside. Serious brass blowing here, followed by a relaxed trio and a final galumph. Every conductor gets to the trio 3'30" into the movement. Barenboim doesn't reach that point until 3'45".

Listen for yourself: Sergiu Celibidache conducts Bruckner's Seventh.
IV: Finale: Bewegt: Docht nicht schnell
Bruckner closes this symphony with a Rondo, but on a gigantic (in other words, typically Brucknerian) scale. The movement built from a five-note melody that recalls the first movement of his Sixth--as if the theme from that darker symphony had finally been resolved. This merry tune is played over a bed of shimmering strings in the cellos, woodwinds, and finally, of course the brass. This joyous shout brings Bruckner's most uplifting symphony to a thunderous close, as the ecstatic chorale of instruments soars up to final, uplifting series of chords that once more evokes Wagner's Das Rheingold.

The massive Rondo allows the most variance of interpretations between the six recordings considered. Celibidache is surprisingly sprightly here, a shade under 12 minutes. Daniel Barenboim's second recording with the Berlin forces opts for more weight, clocking in at 13'29".

For more on Bruckner's symphonies and these recordings, check out our Bruckner Buyer's Guide from 2010.

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